The other night I did something I haven’t done for ages. No, not that, silly. I had a glass – in fact, several – of cider with my supper. We were having slow-cooked pork belly and Puy lentils with homemade apple sauce and it just seemed the most natural thing in the world to prise the cap off a bottle of chilled Aspall Premier Cru from Suffolk rather than uncork a fine Pinot Noir from Burgundy. And, I have to say, it worked a treat.
We followed this with a plate of crumbly vintage cheddar and a bottle or so of Westons Medium Sweet. And what a blissful match that was.
If I’m honest, my career as a true cider aficionado probably peaked around my mid to late teens and early twenties. Growing up in rural Kent in the Seventies, I was virtually weaned on the fearsome cider of the legendary and hugely entertaining Bob Luck, known locally as the biggest fan of his own products.
I remember that the rackety old delivery lorries had “Here’s Luck!” emblazoned on their bonnet and tailgates. “Here’s a vile sore head!” might have been more apposite.
In trying to make the leap from Shloer to cider, and thus from boyhood to manhood, I got quite a taste for the stuff. When I wasn’t drinking Bob Luck’s with my mates from the gallon jar (£1 deposit payable), we were trying to get modest cider-like fixes from fizzy drinks and iced lollies like Cydrax and Cydapple.
Of course, in those days the main appeal of cider to pimply adolescents, not to mention the local tramps, was that it was a cheap, just-about-palatable way of getting drunk. This remains true today, natch, and judging by the number of empty cans they leave behind I wouldn’t be surprised if the dozen or so smackheads, junkies and winos who occupy the Level, my local park in Brighton, were not entirely responsible for keeping Strongbow (and, it must be said, Special Brew, too) in profit.
The thing is, that despite being the drink of choice for such gentlefolk of the road and other open spaces, cider has become more than a little fashionable.
As my old friend Henry Chevallier Guild, outgoing chairman of the National Association of Cider Makers, and proprietor, along with his brother, Barry, of Aspall, points out, cider is the oldest alcoholic drink on record and has been a regular on the gentry’s table for centuries, be it as a thirst-quenching pint or a serious match with food.
Magners, from Ireland, blazed a trail a few years back, encouraging us to drink cider over ice as if this were a novel approach. We were doing the same with Bob’s brew 40 years ago (largely because it was undrinkable without). But the Magners trend caught on and sales of cider rocketed.
Westons, a long-time favourite of mine, currently boasts a turnover of more than £42 million and has more than doubled its UK business over the past five years. And, just to prove it’s not the smackheads driving this growth, it’s the premium end of the market that’s growing fastest.
For sure, there are all too many ghastly bandwagon-jumping alco-pop styles of cider on the market, all sugar and fizz, but at the top end there are some crackers, beautifully crafted and ideal for matching with food.
Some time ago I visited Middle Farm, near Lewes, to take advantage of its facility, which allows folk to bring in apples of their own to be pressed into juice in return for a modest fee. I took a car-boot full of windfalls from my in-laws’ Devon garden and while the resulting juice (presented in dozens of pint cartons ideal for the freezer) was deliciously refreshing, the cider I made with the remainder was tooth-shatteringly dry and acidic and virtually undrinkable.
What I hadn’t twigged, in my ignorance, was the vital importance of blending. As my chum, Henry, from Aspall explains, fine cider is all about being a balanced blend of cookers, eaters and bitter-sweets. Cookers, such as Bramley, Grenadier or Howgate Wonder, give high acidity; eaters such as Cox or Blenheim give aroma and fruit (but not much of a finish); bitter-sweets such as Yarlington Mill or Tremlett’s Bitter give tannin and character (but too little acid) and so on.
“Slosh them all in together, though,” says Henry, “and you get something amazing, perfect with grub or on its own.”
I’ll drink to that, be it with my aperitif of Westons Extra Dry, sea-bass fillet and fennel-matching Aspall Lady Jennifer’s, sausage casserole-matching Dunkertons Black Fox, cheddar-matching Addlestones Cloudy…
SIX OF THE BEST CIDERS
Westons Extra Dry, 6%, Somerset, 500ml (£1.80, Waitrose)
Bone dry, an ideal aperitif.
Wyld Wood Organic Pear Cider, 6%, Herefordshire, 500ml (£1.90, Waitrose)Delicately floral with a long “peary” finish.
Aspall Premier Cru Cyder, 7%, Suffolk, 500ml (£2, Tesco)
Exactly what cider is all about.
Henney’s 2011 Vintage Cider, 6.5%, Herefordshire (£2, Sainsbury’s)
Still and disarmingly delicate.
2011 Cidre BouchE de Normandie, 5%, Normandy, 700ml (£5, Wine Society)
Traditional and very classy.
2006 Leduc-Piedimonte Ice Cider, 10.5%, Quebec, 375ml (£34, Selfridges)
From frozen apples and outrageously tasty.